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Piercing The Corporate Veil: Who May Be At Risk?

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  • Posted on: Dec 14 2016

Let’s say you, the reader, are an entrepreneur who wants to open a business. Although you are willing to run the risks associated with a startup, you do not want to incur any personal liability for the acts done by the business.  After speaking with your family, friends and neighbors, you decide to incorporate the business. The consensus view is that a corporate entity, such as a corporation or limited liability corporation (“LLC”), will enable you to operate the business and shield yourself from any personal liability caused by the acts of the company. After all, they tell you, entrepreneurs form such entities all the time.

Taking the advice of those with whom you consulted, you incorporate your business as an LLC. You hire an attorney who helps you with the incorporation. He also warns you that although you incorporated the business, you are not necessarily insulated from personal liability for the acts of the company or LLC.  The reason you remain at risk, he explains, is because creditors, among others, can pierce the corporate veil (that is, lift the corporation or LLC’s veil of limited liability).

Corporate Liability for Business Debts:

Corporations and LLCs are separate and distinct legal entities, independent of the people who form and own them. The owners of these entities are normally not liable for the debts incurred by the corporation or LLC. However, in certain circumstances, courts will ignore the corporate form and hold the officers, directors, and shareholders or members personally liable for the company’s fraudulent or dishonest acts. When this happens, it is called piercing the corporate veil.

Effects of Piercing the Corporate Veil:

If a court pierces the corporate veil, then the company’s owners, shareholders, or members will be held personally liable for the company’s wrongdoing. This means that the company’s creditors, among others, can go after the owners’ home, bank account, investments, and other assets to satisfy the company’s debt. The courts will not, however, impose personal liability on individuals who are not responsible for the company’s wrongful or fraudulent activities; only those parties responsible for the wrongful conduct will be held liable for the company’s debts.

Courts Will Pierce the Corporate Veil Under Certain Circumstances:

In general, the courts will pierce the corporate veil and impose liability on the company’s owners, shareholders, or members when: (1) the owners, shareholders, or members exercised complete domination over the corporation or LLC; and (2) the owner’s domination of the corporation or LLC was used to commit a fraud or wrong that injured another.

There is No Daylight Between the Company/LLC and its Owner.

Domination of the corporation or LLC by its owners, shareholders or members is not by itself sufficient to pierce the corporate veil. Still, it is a necessary element. The plaintiff must prove that the owner, shareholder or member is operating the corporation or LLC as a “sham” for his/her personal benefit and the corporation or LLC is acting as the “agent,” “alter ego” or “mere instrumentality” of the owner, shareholder or member. Conclusory allegations of domination and control are insufficient. The plaintiff must come forward with facts demonstrating that there was such a unity of interest and control between the defendant and the other entity that they cannot really be said to be two separate entities.

Indicia of domination includes, among others: (1) the failure to adhere to corporate formalities (such as, making important corporate or LLC decisions without recording them in minutes of a meeting); (2) inadequate capitalization (that is, the corporation or LLC never had sufficient funds to operate; it was not a separate entity that could stand on its own); (3) a commingling of assets; (4) one person or a small group of closely related people were in complete control of the corporation or LLC; and (5) use of corporate funds for personal benefit (e.g., the owner, shareholder or member pays his/her personal bills from the business checking account).

The company’s actions were wrongful or fraudulent.

In New York, it is not necessary to plead or prove fraud in order to pierce the corporate veil. Those seeking to pierce the corporate veil must show that the corporation or LLC was dominated in connection with the transaction at issue and that the domination was the instrument of fraud or otherwise resulted in wrongful or inequitable consequences. In other jurisdictions, the plaintiff must show that the corporate form in and of itself operated to serve some fraud or injustice, distinct from the alleged wrongs of individual defendant.

The wrongful or fraudulent conduct caused harm:

A critical component of the doctrine is establishing that the domination of the corporation or LLC led to an inequity, fraud, malfeasance, or injustice against the party seeking to pierce the corporation’s veil. Abuse of the corporation or LLC is not enough. Nor is a simple breach of contract, without more. To establish this element, there must be a temporal relationship between the domination by the owner, shareholder or member and the wrong. Therefore, the party seeking to pierce the corporate veil must establish a causal connection between the abuse of the corporate form and the wrongful conduct for which relief is sought.

How to Protect Against Veil Piercing:

Let’s go back to the hypothetical that started this article. You formed an LLC on the advice of your family, friends and neighbors.  The company, ABC Co. LLC, sells clothing accessories. Unfortunately, when you started the business, you did not capitalize it with sufficient funds. After a few months in business, you started to do several things that blurred the lines between you and the business. For example, you closed the business’s bank account and opened one account for both you and the business. You also personally guaranteed loans from creditors (such as the bank), and agreed to pay the business’s debts from your own personal assets. Finally, you failed to make sure the world knew it was dealing with ABC Co. – you failed to conspicuously identify the company status on all business cards, letters, quotes, invoices, statements, directory listings, advertisements, and other forms of company communication. Recognizing that you might be exposing youself to liability, you go back to the lawyer who helped you incorporate the business for advice.

During your meeting, your lawyer tells you to do the following to avoid trouble: hold annual meetings of directors and shareholders or members, keeping accurate, detailed minutes of important decisions that are made at the meetings; adopt company by-laws; maintain a separate bank account for the company; maintain separate books and records; refrain from commingling personal assets with those of the business; refrain from using corporate assets for personal use; adequately capitalize the company; refrain from personally guaranteeing payment of the corporation or LLC’s debts; make sure the world knows it is dealing with a corporation or LLC by conspicuously identifying the company status on all business communications; sign company documents in your representative capacity; and refrain from engaging in illegal, fraudulent, or reckless acts.

EB Ink Technologies, LLC v. Lamocu Holdings, LLC:

Recently, a New York trial court, applying Delaware law, had the opportunity to consider the foregoing principles.  On November 28, 2016, Justice Kornreich of the New York County Supreme Court, Commercial Division, issued a decision in EB Ink Technologies, LLC v. Lamocu Holdings, LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op. 32339(U), dismissing a veil piercing claim.

Facts of the Case:

The case arose from an option held by EB Ink Technologies, LLC. (“EB Ink”) to acquire 20% of the fully diluted stock of T-Ink, Inc. (“T-Ink”), which was secured by T-Ink stock held in escrow. The number of shares in escrow was subject to increase (e.g., in the event of further dilution); the escrow was supposed to be “topped up” to reflect the 20% of T-Ink’s stock. The top up obligation was a contractual obligation of Lamocu Holdings, LLC (“Lamocu”), a Delaware LLC, as special purpose vehicle (“SPV”). EB Ink had no written agreement with the Individual Defendants (T-Ink’s founders) obligating them to personally top up the escrow with their own shares.

Between December 2007 and May 2008, EB Ink and T-Ink entered into a number of agreements, pursuant to which EB Ink (1) purchased approximately 3.1% of T-Ink’s common stock; (2) loaned $22 million to T-Ink with the right to convert the loan into approximately 17.1% of T-Ink’s common stock; and (3) obtained a warrant to purchase 22% of T-Ink’s common stock on a fully diluted basis. The top up obligation was the result of these transactions.

In October 2009, the Individual Defendants formed Lamocu in order to execute seven contracts with EB Ink. The action concerned only one of those contracts: the Option Agreement. The Option Agreement provided EB Ink with the right to purchase 20% of T-Ink’s common stock on a fully diluted basis for $5 million. The option expires on October 31, 2019.

At the time the Option Agreement was executed, Lamocu did not own any shares of T-Ink other than those it deposited with the escrow agent.  EB Ink alleged that “[i]t was understood and agreed among the [Individual Defendants] and EB Ink that the [Individual Defendants] would at all times provide Lamocu with sufficient shares to satisfy its obligations under the Option Agreement.” Slip op. at 2 (internal quotation omitted). This alleged oral agreement was not contained or referenced in any of the parties’ contracts.

By letter agreement dated March 5, 2013 (the “Letter Agreement”), the parties agreed to amend the Option Agreement so that the amount of shares due upon EB Ink’s exercise of its option would be fixed. This amendment would, therefore, eliminate the perpetual possibility of the escrow needing to be topped off until the option’s expiration in 2019.

In October 2013, one of the Individual Defendants requested that EB Ink exercise its amended option rights under the Letter Agreement to facilitate a transaction with a non-party, Pacific Capital Group (“PCG”) and another investor, who were prepared to invest more than $3 million in T-Ink. EB Ink refused, contending that the conditions of the Letter Agreement had not been satisfied.

Between November 13 and December 6, 2013, the same Individual Defendant and EB Ink negotiated the number of additional shares that would be needed to top up the escrow at the time the amended option was executed. But, no agreement was ever reached. EB Ink claims that it learned that the proceeds from PCG were being used for a purpose prohibited by the Letter Agreement, namely, an acquisition of a German technology company (which also, allegedly, was done by T-Ink acquiring a further $3 million payment obligation). Shortly thereafter, according to EB Ink, it discovered other improper uses of the proceeds. For these reasons, EB Ink never exercised its amended option under the Letter Agreement, nor did it exercise its original option under the Option Agreement, which it claimed was still effective (and which, as noted, does not expire until October 31, 2019).

In January 2014, the same Individual Defendant orally conceded that the conditions under the Letter Agreement were not satisfied. He also allegedly admitted that the Option Agreement was not disclosed to PCG because PCG would not have provided T-Ink with financing had it known about EB Ink’s option. It was at that time, that the Individual Defendants allegedly verbally acknowledged their personal liability to top up the escrow under the Option Agreement. The parties then attempted to negotiate another proposed amendment to EB Ink’s option rights, but no such agreement was reached. By letter dated October 14, 2015, EB Ink demanded that Lamocu top up the escrow as required by the Option Agreement. Lamocu refused to do so, and EB Ink terminated the Letter Agreement.

The Motion to Dismiss and Ruling:

EB Ink commenced the action on January 7, 2016 by filing a complaint with seven causes of action: (1) a declaratory judgment that Lamocu and the Individual Defendants have the obligation to top up the escrow under the Option Agreement; (2) specific performance of the top up obligation, asserted against Lamocu; (3) specific performance of the top up obligation, asserted against the Individual Defendants; (4) piercing Lamocu’s corporate veil to hold the Individual Defendants liable for Lamocu’s top up obligations; (5) fraudulent inducement of the Option Agreement, asserted against Lamocu, the Individual Defendants, and T-Ink; (6) injunctive relief prohibiting the Individual Defendants from selling their T-Ink shares and T-Ink from repurchasing its shares from the Individual Defendants; and (7) anticipatory breach of the escrow top up obligation, asserted against Lamocu and the Individual Defendants.

On April 29, 2016, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which sought dismissal of all claims except the breach of contract claim asserted against Lamocu (the second cause of action). The court granted the defendants’ motion.

In granting the motion, Justice Kornreich observed that EB Ink’s complaint principally relied on claims of veil piercing and alleged oral admissions by the Individual Defendants.  These issues, said Justice Kornreich, were the “core issue[s]” in the case.  As such, the court set out to answer “whether the Individual Defendants [could] be held liable for Lamocu’s top up obligations.”

Although not stated explicitly in the decision, the court found that EB Ink properly alleged domination by the Individual Defendants, stating: “The allegations in the complaint regarding domination, control, and inadequate capitalization, as set forth above, are insufficient [by themselves] to pierce the corporate veil of a closely held Delaware LLC.” Slip op. at 4. But, as the quote shows, those allegations were insufficient to state a claim. The reason being “the requisite fraud allegations [were] not alleged. The only bad act alleged, Lamocu’s breach of its contractual obligations, cannot be used to satisfy the fraud prong.” Id. Under Delaware law, a valid veil piercing claim requires the plaintiff to plead that the company “controlled by defendants [is a] Sham entit[y] designed to defraud investors and creditors . . .” EBG Holdings LLC v. Vredezicht’s Gravenhage 109 B.V., 2008 WL 4057745, at *12 (Del Ch 2008) (“the requisite element of fraud under the alter ego theory must come from an inequitable use of the corporate form itself as a sham, and not from the underlying claim.”).

Takeaway:

EB Ink reinforces the point that domination of the corporation is not enough to pierce the corporate veil. A plaintiff must demonstrate the other elements of the doctrine – namely, a fraud and causation.  EB Ink was unable to allege either.  In fact, Justice Kornreich made a point of noting that this failure was “fundamental” to the dismissal of the claim:

On an even more fundamental level, the claim that the Individual Defendants were intended to be held liable for Lamocu’s top up obligations is based on the entirely foreseeable assumption that Lamocu, an SPV, would not have the ability to top up the escrow because it did not own the shares needed to do so. Even if the court found EB Ink’s position to be sympathetic, equity is not a concern the court may consider when interpreting a contract or assessing the legitimacy of a Delaware corporation.

The parties here are sophisticated and, therefore, the court must enforce their agreement, even if the court or one of the parties believes the agreement to be unwise. EB Ink admits that it knew that Lamocu did not own shares of T-Ink that could be used to top up the escrow. Obviously, entering into a contract with a judgment proof SPV that obligates the SPV to deliver shares, which it does not own nor has the means to acquire, is an extremely perilous risk. It is hard to imagine a more extreme undertaking of counterparty credit risk. Had the parties intended to obligate the Individual Defendants, instead of just Lamocu, to top up the escrow, they could have (and would have) expressly done so in one of their many agreements. They did not. The court cannot rewrite the parties’ contract to give EB Ink a better bargain than it negotiated. Rather, the court must give effect to the parties’ decision to not contract for the Individual Defendants to have the personal obligation to top up the escrow.

Slip op. at 4 (citations and internal quotations omitted).

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